Book Review: The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu. In which the voice in your head might actually be an alien wingman who will make your life so much classier.

Art by Chris Goff

I’ve been so behind on the Sci-fi Experience as hosted by Carl V over @ Stainless Steel Droppings! The Sci-fi Experience continues until Jan. 31st and celebrates everything awesome about science-fiction. Here’s my last minute contribution for this month 😛 Hopefully I will do better in January…

Title: The Lives of Tao

Author: Wesley Chu

Genre: Sci-fi

Days to read it: TWO glorious days 😀

Synopsis:

Roen Tan spends his days stuffing himself with frozen dinners, cowering under his boss’ gaze, and trying (unsuccessfully) to pick up girls from the local clubs of Chicago.  There’s probably a better—more fulfilling—way to live his life but trying to turn his life around just seems way too hard and Roen prefers to cruise along Mediocrity Street and bemoan the destiny life has fated him with. After a particularly pathetic night at the club followed by an equally pathetic day at work of getting-hassled-by-the-boss-while-doing-mind-numbing-work, Roen find his unimpressive life flashing before his eyes when a homeless man tries to mug him for a couple of extra dollars. At this lowest moment of his life, he thinks he’s finally had a mental breakdown because he hears a voice in his head instructing him on how to save his rather worthless butt. Except he isn’t crazy. In fact, that voice might just be the best thing to happen to him since frozen pizza. That voice is Tao, an alien being that must live in a human host to survive. Tao has cohabited the minds of great figures throughout history—from Genghis Khan to Vercingetorix—and his race, the Quasing, have been behind almost all of humanity’s greatest leaders and thinkers, shaping the evolution of human civilization from the very beginning. But, transforming Roen into a competent host both physically and mentally might just be Tao’s greatest challenge, yet. And he doesn’t have much time because there are ruthless enemy Quasing out there that would love to put an end to him—and Roen, too. Before long, Roen finds himself besieged by geriatric adversaries, inculcated into the strict arts of T’ai Chi, and beaten black and blue in the training ring by a particularly skillful fellow agent, Sonya. Life becomes so much more difficult, but for the first time ever, Roen feels like he’s living. But Tao’s world is one of secrets and deadly dangers. Will Roen be able to keep up or will he find himself embroiled in something that would make his mediocre life of before seem like a fairytale in comparison? Sometimes philosophical, sometimes silly, and endlessly entertaining, Wesley Chu’s The Lives of Tao is a training montage set to an epic soundtrack with a climactic, bullet-riddled finale that will hit you in the soft spots!

Impressions:

I don’t consider myself a slob like Roen, but I can definitely relate to that feeling of a lack of inertia and the feeling of thwarted dreams or lost opportunities that Roen feels. On my worst days I certainly feel like I could benefit from an Ultimate Life Coach like Tao to get my act together. The Lives of Tao is so much more than just another action-packed story full of kevlar and bullets. It’s more than another secret agent story full of intrigue and back-stabbing. The tagline of the book—there’s a hero inside every one of us—catches the gist of what it’s really about: how to bring out the best of who we are from within. How to see beyond the small sphere of what we selfishly want for ourselves and seek a higher cause to fight for. How to stop making excuses for ourselves when life disappoints.

At the beginning of the story, Roen’s life is as dull and depressing as Neo’s before he left the Matrix or Wesley’s before he joined the Fraternity of assassins. His life was the way it is not because he isn’t capable of transforming his life for the better, but because he’d long since given up on believing in his own potential—believing that he can be anything other than a disappointment. He spends many of his days in a toxic haze of drunkenness and listlessness and bloatedness. And when he’s at work, he complains about what could have been. He doesn’t like his job as an IT technician—he thinks he could have been a lawyer or an engineer, jobs that seem more interesting and fulfilling in his eyes. Except he has rent to pay. And a cat to feed. He can’t afford to do anything drastic, right? But, deep down inside, he knows the real reason is that he just doesn’t have the guts to start afresh. Everything, down to the Making of Excuses is something I am 100% guilty of doing, too. At some point Tao tells Roen that the reason Roen didn’t make something more of himself was because he “always quit before things get hard”. After reading those parts, I sank into my comforter shamefully, thinking, “That sounds so much like me!”

Needless to say I was very eager to see Roen transform into the butterfly I knew he had in him.

When Tao enters the picture, Roen has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny—a destiny that is much harder to attain but lets him see the world with a perspective that few have a chance to see and experience life in a way that few have a chance to experience. After all, the only way he can really see his own boundless potential and truly empower himself is to test his mettle against the toughest challenges out there. And Tao is more than ready to help him with that—Roen just has to commit to that path.

Cue The Final Countdown as Roen runs and lifts and diets his way to a new self.

And the whole way up contains plenty of opportunities for Wesley Chu to crack me up. I totally dig his brand of cheeky humor!

Roen is endearingly bumbling and inept compared to the infinitely more capable and experienced Tao. Tao’s moments of exasperation and gentle patience for this young grasshopper color the story with entertaining banter. Roen’s everyman struggles to become “superman” as well as his overestimation and underestimation of his abilities provide lots of material for jokes and quips from both parties. Under Tao’s tutelage, Roen can, indeed, become a super suave agent if he wants to. But, more often than not, he’s just uncoordinated and awkward Roen.

There are so many scenes where I could almost picture Tao face palming.

Underlying all of these more light-hearted parts of the story is a growing darkness as enemies encroach on Tao. Roen must put his training into good use or die—or worst yet, see those he cares about in danger. There is a lot of the typical tension secret agents have to face when it comes to balancing their secret identities with the “normal” lives they lead. Except Roen’s pretty atypically horrible at keeping the two separate. The story certainly had me biting my nails and groaning every time Roen went against Tao’s better judgment and did something a secret agent should never do!!

Amidst all the action and humor, there is also plenty of room for philosophical discussions, Themes such as the morality of sacrificing the few for the many, whether conflict is necessary for humanity to innovate, where to draw the line when making war to build peace, and much more provide depth to the story and food for thought. And interspersed in the story are bits and pieces of history as told from the point-of-view of the Quasing. I was very amused to find out that Galileo only discovered that the Earth rotated around the sun because a Quasing told him (what about Nicolaus Copernicus, though?).

The ending really had me on the edge of my seat. I’ll just say that the book has you emotionally invested down to the last page!

Overall, I had great fun reading Wesley Chu’s The Lives of Tao and BONUS it gets you going in the feels department, too.  If you’re in the mood for a little bit of philosophy, humor, action, and tons of emotional impact, you’ll get a bit of all in this awesome yellow book. Also, isn’t it doubly awesome that Wesley Chu named one of the most kick-ass characters after his wife?

Rating: 4.5 times Roen hits the snooze button on his alarm clock before Tao wakes him up!

Excerpt:

(I’m having formatting problems so though it’s italicized in the book, I put Tao’s thoughts between <> à la Animorphs)

Here’s one of my favorite parts in the beginning of the book. Roen has just agreed to go on his first early morning run…ever. And he wants to give up, already…

“…You probably just possess rich or good-looking people or someone with six-pack abs or some football player. I’m nothing. You probably think you got shafted with such a crappy host.”
 
<That is not true. You have potential. I know it.> Tao chuckled, or what amounted to a chuckle from a Quasing. <You are really no different from several of my early hosts. Their situations were a bit different than yours, but all three of you share similar angst.>
 
“You mean they were fat with a dead-end job?”
 
<No, they came from wealthy, noble families, but all of you were big babies. The difference is that they learned to overcome their insecurities and grew to be powerful men.>
 
“That’s the stupidest comparison I’ve ever heard.” Roen stopped walking and collapsed on a wooden bench. His chest was throbbing, though he wasn’t sure whether it was from physical exertion or boiling anger.
 
<You underestimate yourself, as always. As I was saying, Vercingetorix was once very much like you are now.>
 
“What? Vercinge…is that a person or a medical disorder?”
 
<Have a little respect for a past host. It is their combined experiences and memories that can make you great. Many of my hosts were great figures in history that changed the course of mankind. The very least you could do is be respectful.>
 
“Whatever,” Roen grumbled as he leaned back and looked up at the sky. It was getting brighter as the sun appeared on the horizon, bathing the city with a soft yellow glow. He took a few minutes to admire the pretty hues. It wasn’t often he got the chance to see the sun rise. After several moments, he finally calmed down, being too tired to stay angry. “So what does this Vercing guy have to do with me?”
 
<He was much like you when I first transitioned with him. He had must but was not satisfied. He had principles, but was not strong enough to follow them, at least at first.>
 
“So what happened? Did you convince him to listen to you, and he discovered a cure for the bubonic plague or something?”
 
<A cure for the Black Death was not discovered until the 1930s. Vercingetorix was a Gaul who united his people and became king at the age of seventeen. He rallied them together and was able to give Caesar one of his rare defeats.>
 
“Hmm, he does sound an awful lot like me,” Roen replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “A kid who becomes king and defeats the greatest Roman general of all time is so me. And I suppose he was a coward and a fat-ass as well?”
 
<Vercingetorix was a fine young man and an inspirational leader, but he was not born that way. No one is. Great men are forged, not born. I am not going to insult your intelligence, Roen. You are not great, but you can be if you try. Is that not worth some sacrifice?>
 
Roen grimaced. There was no good way to answer that question. “Fine,” he said grudgingly and paused. “What did this guy do, anyway?”
 
<He led the last great Gaul rebellion against the Roman Empire.>
 
“Why didn’t one of your kind just enter Caesar?”
 
<It is a bit more complicated than that, Roen. We did have someone in Caesar.>
 
Roen looked back down at the ground, puzzled. “I don’t get it. Why would you want a host to fight another one of your own? Was it a Genjix?”
 
<No, it was one of ours. This was before the split. Times were different then. Our goals and strategies were different as well. The Roman Empire had grown overly stagnant with its dominance. It was our belief back then that conflict bred evolution.>
 
“And then what happened?”
 
<Well, Vercingetorix lost the siege of Gergovia, and was locked up for a few years until Caesar had him strangled in public during the Festival of Jupiter.>
 
“What!”
 
<I never said it was a happy ending. It rarely is. But for a brief instant in time, he burned like the sun and changed the world, and it still remembered to this day. Look to your right, Roen. It is the path back home. If you choose, you can take it. It is safe, easy, and comfortable. You do not have to work out or fight or do anything else you do not want to.>
 
Roen looked down the street. By now, the sun was higher and the streets were alive with activity. The streets were filling up with the morning rush hour, and commuter trains passed along the elevated tracks. The sounds of cars honking and people bustling about filled the air. In the distance, a helicopter overhead was most likely reporting the morning traffic.
 
<Or you can keep moving forward. I will not lie to you. I cannot predict what may become of you. It will require a lot of training, hard work, study, and danger. But in the very end, you will know strength. I swear it. You might just become someone who will make a difference in the world.>

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu. In which the voice in your head might actually be an alien wingman who will make your life so much classier.

  1. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this. I had a great time with this book too, especially since I read it at a time when I was still somewhat new to science fiction. A book like this was perfect to get my feet wet, because of Chu’s easy style and the humor that made reading this so smooth and easy. I hope you’ll have as much fun with the next book, though the story does get progressively darker …still a boatload of laughs though 🙂

  2. Mogsy – I’m still kind of new-ish to science fiction as well so even though the whole aliens inhabiting human minds trope has been done time and again, it still feels fresh to me. Also, it helps that the book just keeps making me chuckle. I can sense that the next book might become darker (considering how this one left off) but I love Tao and Roen’s interactions so much — can’t wait to sprint onwards!

  3. Redhead – Thanks 😀 Yes, the third one just came out (hence my mad scramble to get started on the series :P) I’m enjoying the ride so far, can’t wait to dive in again in the Deaths of Tao!

  4. Okay – I am so happy I picked this series up and cannot wait to read this! If only I didn’t have so many books I actually “have” to read for reviews and everything in January! This series I deff a top of the list to read once I get through this upcoming rush 🙂

    And it might be kind of cool to have Tao talking to me in my head? 😛

  5. Blah, I wanted to like this book so much more than I actually did like it. I thought it came off arch, and I just wasn’t into the narrator’s voice at all. Eventually I admitted to myself I wasn’t enjoying it, and DNFed.

  6. So much fun reading your review. Loved this book and need to make time to get to the other two in the trilogy. I would also recommend Chu’s newest book, Time Salvager.

    I’m with you in that I was fully engaged all the way to the end, and this is one I’ve passed on to several other people and it has been a hit with all of them.

  7. Jenny – Aw, boo!! But it happens 🙂 Definitely, if the narrator doesn’t appeal, it’ll be damned difficult to keep reading (I’ve wanted to throw books across the room for that alone).

  8. DJ – Hehe, too much to read too little time! Ain’t that always the case for us bookworms? Hell, I’m already waaaay further behind than I thought I would be.

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